“Xenophobic violence” : The debate we refuse to have!

– They say …. ‘THEY TAKE from us’…

It is said history repeats itself the first time in a farce the second in tragedy. Last night a long-standing friend and brother from Accra Ghana contacted me to assist him locating his brother since they could not track him, I am happy to report he is accounted for and in good health.

I finally found the courage to pen the note I was intimidated not to write because as leaders we are compelled in this season to prove circumspect not to fuel the actions of hooligans and African self-hate. Let me than therefore in the beginning be unambiguous and categoric, I along with my family, our church family, and friends circle vehemently condemn the attacks on fellow Africans in this season as we have done so in previous seasons. Our prayers are with the victims of these attacks.

As the tensions mount in pockets of SA in this season, we are forced to pause to ask have we ever truly engaged the subject of what is meant with xenophobia, or xenophobic violence or as some call it afrophobia in its periodic manifestations if and when it occurs. The historic reality of the usage of this term speaks of a violence meted out to the collective experiences of the Jews at the hands of the Nazis, and on another platform as immanent in Europe for example with the Roma (Gypsies).

The upfront question I seek to introduce into the debate is can we comfortably claim xenophobia or xenophobic violence meted out to people because they are of a certain description i.e. Somali, etc, as was the case with the Jews?

It appears we are all constrained to engage the subject matter because it is believed from some quarters when you raise issues around it you are on the side of violence and criminal behaviour. I am deliberately not going to entertain this shady and suspect prism of an either or, particularly since we have yet to establish by what arrogated powers are we forced into silence with this claim of either or paradigm? Why are we as leaders finding ourselves brow- beaten to toe a line of condemning only and not engaging in analysing in this season?

It is my contention that the debate on xenophobia or what I shall call ‘xenophobic violence’ remains a shallow one. Is it than surprising that this is repeating itself hardly seven years later at least for the third time now if the recent Soweto incidents of early 2015 are included. In some quarters, we even hear some remonstrate there should not be any debate for this is purely criminal. Political parties no different to most constituencies making up our society fuels this shallow debate, and lacks the wherewithal to help SA engage this nettle.

Yes, our approach to this subject suggests a haphazard response because we argue in simplicity of a real crisis, as an event, with the only desire to get it off our radar as the proverbial fly that disturbs us. We consciously refuse to engage the mumbled articulation of those directly affected of issues at hand. We prove dismissive in ease of their claim. We should know being dismissive does not take away the issues some may advance at least as seen and experienced by those who choose to rise and attack.

Today we all jump and condemn the attacks (rightfully so) but unfortunately that is but only a first step if we are serious to deal with the issue of xenophobia / afrophobia. Condemning the perpetrators is the easy part; dealing with the intertwined challenges, which ultimately manifests in xenophobic violence and attacks is what we cannot escape. We may continue to have afrophobia – xenophobia attacks if we continue to be dismissive of the claims of those who today attack fellow Africans. Equally, we may continue to have xenophobic attacks if we continue to be dismissive of the need to provide an orderly framework within the legitimate entrepreneurial desires of all involved.

To argue those who persist in their mumbled contention as mere hooligans / criminals because we are embarrassed of their wanton behaviour, is to fail to appreciate that the issues raised by those who in this season have taken it upon themselves to attack fellow Africans warrants engagement. These issues often finds claim in a mumbled articulation be it the Cape Town, Eastrand, Soweto or now Kwa Zulu Natal. The central theme as it is heard in the media adopts the notion of ‘they take our jobs, our business, our women, our children and our RDP homes’.

When we hear them say, THEY TAKE the above we prove dismissive in claims of South Africans are lazy, wanting government to do everything for them. These responses as categoric as they are made, recorded, and articulated consciously refuse to hear the two critical words – THEY TAKE…

It is here that I wish to postulate ‘xenophobic violence’ does not manifests in the spaces where the ruling class lives, transact and play, for here the borders and boundaries have been set informed by ownership of means or a sharing therein as the ruling class permits.There is no question that many of our fellow African brothers and sisters in semblance of pockets are also present here and are not affected by this afrophobia.

Xenophobia does not play out in manifestation in a middle class setting; it does not make its way to suburbia SA where the order of a middle class insulates those of this class definition. Again, there is no question that our fellow African brothers and sister are represented in this group too and live comfortably in contribution to a functional SA in all manifestations of its lived experience.

Xenophobic violence finds traction among the poorest of the poor. It finds meaning where there is a contestation for resources, services, and access however defined. It is here where the subject of – THEY TAKE – is most prominent and finds meaning. Please do not misread me to argue the poor are naturally prone to behave in a xenophobic manner, but hear the context rather than a conclusive view on the poor. It operates in a space and place where the most vulnerable struggles to eke out an existence in the midst of a rightfully or wrongly claimed persistent taking from them.

It operates in the midst of those for whom a historic, present, and future disenfranchisement, regardless the beauty of a constitutional democracy, is more than tangible. Yes those who have not shared in this South African dream of a collective future of equal opportunity. When the poor, those trapped in a space of contestation for basic resources, claims being left behind (rightfully or in error of claim) as forgotten and sees another (foreign) enter their space and derive an economic benefit, claim a right of equality from the very context of their poverty they see it again as – They take- It is not an exact science but a lived experience in which the margins of advancement are contested in a township. Let us also not forget those who come to the township from the deep rural villages come to share in its economy and equally find a place to eke out an existence for their personal and family’s survival.

The interesting reality is as earlier advanced the absence of xenophobic violence in certain social spaces confirms that a regulated context is possible. Meaning we have a working model. The question becomes why we are showing a reluctance to extend the same to the poor. Our democratic project does not afford us the luxury to leave the poor to fend for themselves.

A further noteworthy point is the responses the elite and middle class exhibit, it appears they enter in response to xenophobic violence less with the victims, the poor in mind, but themselves as the epicentre for their articulation of solutions. In fact it says more about our middle class pervasive embarrassment than the real concerns for the victims of those unacceptable inhumane attacks. We therefore must desist to prove dismissive of the claims of those who participate in these inhumane attacks. It is not because there exist no case for experiencing of ‘they take’.

Perhaps if we are less crisis driven, less event-focussed and more conscious of generating a dialogue of equals on the subject matter of this -they take – as an experiential reality, we may grasp the nettle of the periodic unacceptable attacks on our fellow Africans in understanding the context better. Ours dare not be to simply be dismissive in labelling fellow South Africans mere hooligans; this is the easy way out and a focus on the peripheral aspects. It is a given that in all unrests there are components of hooliganism, and political parties, civil society and structures of community will tell you their genuine causes often remain hijacked by a handful of hooligans.

We do not have the luxury of reducing a cause to mere hooliganism when we in our own marches and civil unrest have seen this phenomenon time after time. When political leadership huddles in claims of being dismissive we fail to acknowledge the reality because leadership often is insulated as part of the ruling elite and from that presence may truly be out of touch with the notion of they take, in fact it cannot make sense given where the ruling and middle class finds themselves.

When our minister of Internal Affairs rises to respond to the subject it cannot be in absence of the acknowledgement of an admittance that the true record of foreigners in SA is non-existent sketchy and very precarious. It cannot be devoid of admittance that our borders as a sovereign independent state prove porous, soluble and open for abuse on a daily basis. It cannot be devoid of admittance that the framework in which the entrepreneurial energy of the poor is suppose to be harnassed is not functioning well hence the periodic outbursts of violence.

The xenophobic attacks with a genesis in recorded history since 2008, warrants us to ask some serious tough questions. It is in our collective interest to open our minds to ask the tough questions:

1. What is our true policy on migration and how is that policy experienced as a lived reality ?

2. What is the real contestation of the poor ( defined by some as shameless hooligans) all about?

3. Where does this ‘xenophobic violence’ find resonance and traction for it to be so easy to manifest given our commitment to the undersigning of the UN conventions of asylum seekers and refugees coupled with our own SA laws of human rights base laws for citizenry and foreigner protections of rights?

Perhaps the biggest problem in our long overdue debate is the fact that the ruling elite have determined xenophobia a non-debate.

The ruling elites aided by a middle-class have decided this a criminal manifestation and therefore not to be entertained in plausibility of what we can learn from it. Therefore in the absence of a truly engaged strategy I am afraid in a country where inequality, poverty, and unemployment remains the true challenges with astronomical growing numbers the challenge of ‘xenophobic violence’ a, as a response to the claim – they take – may occur with ease from time to time.

We must needs find another analysis of this phenomenon, if we in any sense serious to eradicate the demon of xenophobia as a future reality. In the absence of such we will remain, reactionary, incidental, trapped in state of public relations exercise of damage control in which we refuse to engage the phenomenon in the fullness of its manifestation.

Until we deal with the multiplicity of dimensions of this issue lumped together in a term ‘xenophobia’ we still have to engage, regardless to how discomforting it may make us feel we may endure tragedy time after time.

Bishop Clyde N. S. Ramalaine


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